|Child's sidewalk drawing, Northbrook, 2017|
"Home," wrote Robert Frost, in his heartbreaking poem "Death of a Hired Man," "is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."
It's a fraught sentence, with more going on under the surface than might immediately appear. It has the perspective of youth built in. Implied is the prodigal, all possibilities squandered, arriving unwelcome on his familiar doorstep. The door is half opened, by a powerful arm. A surprised, almost angry glare. Then a sigh. A step back, the door now open all the way. Welcome home.
Frost was 40—his birthday was this past Sunday—when the poem was published, in his collection "North of Boston" in 1914, for which he collected one of his four Pulitzer Prizes. Forty hovers between the man who shows up at the door and the man who opens it—Frost had already had his six children by then, and seen two of them die. If you haven't read the poem, you should do so now by clicking on the link above, as nothing here will reward your time like that will.
It's told mostly in dialogue, the cadences of New England: Ezra Pound thought it Frost's best poem. Though it isn't about the return of a son, but a broken down farm employee with no where else to go.
I've always taken that line out and repurposed it, which you are allowed to do. It's my favorite line from Frost, who gets a bad rap, for "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening" with its village and little horse and the woods, "lovely, dark and deep," not to mention those two roads diverging into a yellow wood. Based on that, he's thought of as sort of the poetic Norman Rockwell. Though, like Rockwell, he is judged harshly by what the crowd embraced. And just as Rockwell came out slugging for civil rights, so there is "Out, Out" about a boy who cuts his hand off in a buzz saw. Frost saw poetry as starting in something real.
A poem, he said, is “never a put-up job.... It begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a loneliness. It is never a thought to begin with. It is at its best when it is a tantalizing vagueness.”
"A sense of wrong ... a tantalizing vagueness." Lot of that going around lately. Living in Northbrook for the past 16 years, it of course is my home, at least officially, technically. And while I am fond of the 1905 Queen Anne farmhouse where we live and raised our boys, when I walk to the park downtown, and sit on a bench, regarding the stillness, I can't say I feel that this is my home. Which raises the question: if not here, then where? Where might home be? My parents are both alive, in Boulder, and though I've been visiting there since 1973, Boulder certainly isn't home. Nor is Berea, Ohio, where I grew up, though I do love to go back, and can't help but notice we could buy four similar houses there for what our house costs here.
Digging deeper, I suppose home is where my wife is. That makes sense. Even on a Metra car, riding the train to work in the morning, has a warm, comfortable, sleepover feel with us shoulder to shouler, reading the papers in companionable silence. If not that, then home has to be something I'm still looking for, the impulse that caused me to set my sails at 18 and drift away in the first place. I'm assuming I'll know it when I see it. But maybe not.